As a federal criminal attorney, I have seen every possible type of police action, including stops, searches and abuse. One common theme in all these stories is police trickery and subterfuge — a full pantheon of underhanded tactics designed specifically to separate productive citizens from their rights and set up just cause for a search. I give out plenty of advice on this subject when I speak and when I advise my criminal defense clients, so today I thought I would publish some of the top tips right here in the blog. Clip and save these — they could someday keep you out of jail!
Tip #1: Stay in the Car
Sounds simple, right? And yet each year, thousands of routine traffic stops suddenly escalate when an unsuspecting driver steps out of the car. Cops don’t know what they’re facing when they pull a vehicle over, and opening your door can be seen as an instant threat. Really anything that appears to endanger the police can put you in immediate danger and give the men in blue more cause to search your vehicle, so sit tight! You’ll have plenty of chances to fight back down the line.
Tip #2: Be Calm and Polite
Same idea. Cops may be crooked, or poorly trained, or even a little dim, but we can all agree they have a tough job. When people start jawing off or acting menacing in any way, they have no choice but to respond with stronger tactics and possible force. Any one of these could get you hurt; at the very least your behavior will raise suspicions and give the cops instant cause to search your vehicle. Keep your cool, and you just might drive away free.
Tip #3: Don’t Touch!
Touching a police officer in any way is against the law. No matter what your intent, no matter what the context, even if you are just making a friendly gesture or putting the punchline on a knee-slapper, when you cross that physical barrier and make contact with a peace officer, you are committing a crime. You could be charged for the contact alone, and you will almost certainly see your vehicle searched in a hurry.
Tip #4: Keep Quiet
Cops ask a lot of questions; you don’t have to answer any of them. You are entirely within your rights to refuse to answer questions, no matter how simple they may seem. If you suspect you may be in trouble and the cops are fishing for further incriminating information, for instance, keep mum and call a good criminal defense attorney. The last thing you need is for one slip-up or a careless inconsistency to give the police what they’re really looking for — a good reason to toss your car and haul you into the station.
Tip #5: Know Your Status
You’re at the side of the road, lights flashing in your face, passing motorists whispering “There but for the grace of God…” It’s uncomfortable and frustrating, sure — but are you being detained, or merely annoyed? This is a crucial distinction that can help you win a case down the line, because if the cops have detained you without cause, that’s the ballgame. Ask your arresting officer whether you are actually being detained or are free to go. Anything short of official detention and the cops have no choice but to set you loose, meaning you can drive away without putting your record or freedom in any further jeopardy.
Tip #6: Tell the Truth
Most of us lie in our daily lives; it’s just a reflexive habit when trouble appears. But the rules are different when that trouble appears in the person of a police officer, as lying to the cops for any reason can quickly get you busted. If you are consenting to answer questions at all (See Tip #4), be sure you are answering honestly. The cops have countless ways to verify your name, registration, record, and so on, so the longest your fib can last is about ten minutes. Don’t do it. Stand on the truth, and a good defense attorney can mount a more effective defense of you in court.
Tip #7: Don’t Believe the Lies
Sure, you have to tell the truth, but do the police? Not at all. Cops use a number of tactics to learn more about you and create just cause for a search. These can include telling you there is a problem with your vehicle, or even spinning tales about a crime committed in your area. Don’t believe a word of it — the cops are just fishing for permission to take a closer look. Never consent to a search of your vehicle unless the cops compel you to. Believe me when I say that busted tail light isn’t endangering anyone.
Tip #8: Don’t Give the Cops Cause
This is the one that pretty much sums up all the others. Police officers cannot by law to search your vehicle unless they have your permission, or something called “probable cause.” The definition of “probable cause” is a moving target, and the cops are always looking for ways to justify an illegal search. Your best strategy is to avoid anything that even looks suspicious. Open wine bottles, that bumper sticker for High Times, even bloodshot eyes can show up in a police report. Play the part of good citizen, and you can effectively handcuff the cops before they handcuff you.
Tip #9: Make a Record
One of the best defenses against police abuse is video. If you are in a situation where a cop has grown abusive or is violating your rights, there is no more powerful weapon than good evidence. Keep your phone handy for a quick video, or have a passenger record one. No video handy? Consider calling your own voicemail to create an audio record of the complete traffic stop. There is simply no substitute for solid proof in Texas criminal court.
Tip #10: Know Your Rights
The law is a machine, with moving parts that work according to a very specific set of rules. The better you know your rights in a traffic stop, the better you can manage the situation — both in the moment, and later in court. In a subsequent post I will explain these legal rights in plain language for your reference, but the take-away is simple: you never have to speak, or incriminate yourself, or consent to a search, or even stick around at all without just cause.
The police start out with the upper hand in a traffic stop, but that doesn’t mean they have carte blanche to bully and intimidate you into an unlawful search. If you keep your cool and follow these handy tips, a talented criminal defense lawyer should be able to help you get out from under this trouble sooner rather than later.